Monday, 30 January 2012

That was the week that was (23 - 29 January)

Quite a few movies watched, this week, but only one which I would recommend with any great conviction. Certainly, nothing has come close to toppling Margaret as my favourite film of the year so far...

Pitch Black (2000)

The movie which made Vin Diesel's name (now there's a claim to fame!) sees a group of space travellers crashland on a barren planet, with no signs of the planet's former (human) inhabitants. At first the group believe that the fearsome prisoner Richard Riddick (Diesel) is all they have to be concerned about, but they soon realise that the planet is infested with a fearsome and aggressive alien species, whose only weakness is a fear of the light. I'd heard a few people speak favourably of this film, and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed with what I saw. The first half of the film is a rather slow paced space soap opera, with the crew of the ship endlessly debating about whether or not they can trust Riddick. The characters are rather broadly drawn, with one guy in particular, a prissy, snobbish, English antiques dealer, practically having an arrow pointed over his head marked 'cannon fodder'. When the alien attack does finally materialise, there are a few impressive shock sequences, but I felt the concept of an attack by creatures who thrive in the darkness was handled more effectively in Neil Marshall's The Descent (which admittedly is a more recent movie). All too often, I was very aware that I was watching some pretty average actors being menaced by CGI effects which are starting to show their age. I very much doubt that I'll continue the journey with the sequel to this movie, The Chronicles of Riddick.

Rating: 5/10

Haywire (2011)

Steven Soderbergh's latest effort is an attempt to inject some realism into the action movie genre. He has casted real life mixed martial artist Gina Carano and let her loose on a number of serious dramatic actors, including Michael Fassbender, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Ewan McGregor. It sounds like a bit of a strange concept, but by and large, I'd say he pulls it off. The plot is a little perfunctory - it's your basic spy/action movie set up: Carano plays Mallory Caine, a secret agent betrayed by a rogue element within her government, who is out to wreak revenge on those who she holds responsible. All of this is just a way of getting Carano into situations where she can beat the living daylights out of some deserving adversaries, but these scenes feel more brutal and realistic than comparable sequences in, say, the last few Brosnan Bond movies. For a first time actress, Gina Carano certainly holds her own in such illustrious company, and though the film's no masterpiece, I definitely enjoyed myself. Apparently, Mr Soderbergh is about to get out of the old directing game, hang up his clapperboard and run an emu farm in Kentucky (OK, I made the last part up, but the first bit is true). I wouldn't say I've loved everything he's done, but I can't deny that he's made a number of excellent movies (sex, lies and videotape, Traffic, Out Of Sight, Ocean's Eleven...) I just hope that Haywire is part of a generally upwards trajectory for his final few films, and he goes out on a high note.

Rating: 7/10

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

In which a group of fun-loving youngsters heads out to an out of the way ranch for a weekend of drinking, smoking and generally getting up to no good. Unfortunately, the kids' shenanigans seem to have disturbed a mysterious, hooded psycho, who has decided to bump them off, one by one... I've been known to enjoy a good slasher movie, but to be honest, I think the genre may have peaked quite some time ago. I can't think of too many from the last ten years which really make the cut (See what I did there? Brilliant, eh?). Off the top of my head, Switchblade Romance is the only one which I can remember really enjoying. Anyway, ATBLML isn't a complete disaster - it isn't as bad as Friday the 13th Part V, say - but it's nothing special, and never as clever as it seems to think it is. On the plus side, Amber Heard gives an appealing performance in the lead role, the movie is well shot, considering its low budget, and there's a (somewhat) surprising twist in the tale. On the down side, in common with many a slasher film, other than Mandy herself, most of the teen characters here are obnoxious, self-obsessed idiots. While this does have the advantage that you aren't too sorry to see them get their comeuppance, it also means that getting through the 'getting to know you' character scenes at the start of the movie are a real chore. In any event, the main problem here is that the movie just isn't frightening enough. Sure, there are a few unpleasantly graphic death scenes, but for me, the most effective part of a slasher film are those scary and suspenseful scenes where the killer stalks the victim. In this respect, Mandy Lane is sorely lacking. Given a choice between this type of modern slasher flick, and the '70s classics, I'll take Halloween or Black Christmas any day of the week.

Rating: 5/10

Cell 211 (2009)

This recent Spanish movie is set within the claustrophobic confines of Zamora Prison, where new prison guard Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) is having the worst first day on the job in history. After being accidentally knocked unconcious, he is set down to rest in an empty cell, but soon finds himself behind enemy lines as a prison riot erupts, led by the charismatic but short-tempered inmate Malamadre (Luis Tolar). If Juan is to survive his ordeal, he must pose as a prisoner - and pretty soon, he's facing suspicion from within the ranks of the rioters. All in all, this was a well acted, decently directed drama, but to me, it all felt a bit like a Spanish episode of Oz, the HBO drama series. Now, I do like Oz, but I felt at times that the show went a bit too far in search of new storylines, which sometimes meant that things became quite implausible. Cell 211 suffers from the same problem - though it builds up a believable world inside the jail, certain plot twists which occur detract from the believability of the story, so the tragedy facing the lead character never quite had the impact on me that the filmmakers (I feel) were aiming for. It's solid enough then, but not in the same league as the undisputed heavyweight champion of prison movies, Un Prophet.

Rating: 7/10

Fire in Babylon (2010)

This excellent documentary looks back to the glory days of West Indies cricket when, from the mid 1970s until then early 1990s, the team were unbeaten in Test match series. The film charts the team's progress from the 'Calypso cricket' played by earlier West Indian sides, who were regarded as talented, but lacking in the application to succeed, through to the ruthless and fearsome team which was built on the back of some of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. Many of the leading lights from the era get to have their say, including the likes of Sir Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. What is particularly interesting is the way the filmmakers highlight the way that the upheaval social injustices in the region at the time spurred the players on, with the West Indians being particularly motivated to defeat England, their former colonial masters. Highly recommended for any cricket fan.

Rating: 8/10

The Descendants (2011)

After a lengthy absence, director Alexander Payne has returned with this latest effort, a film which has attracted a great deal of critical claim in the US, as well as being nominated for four Oscars. It's all about the travails of Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney), who is forced to make some difficult decisions when his wife suffers a near-fatal boating accident. He has to take care of his two feisty daughters (played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and deal with his aggressive father in law (Robert Forster) and the Nelson Muntz lookalike his daughter is dating. While all of this is going on, he's responsible for negotiating the sale of a large parcel of land which his family owns, which requires getting the approval of the various cousins who all have a stake in it. On top of everything else, he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with a local estate agent - and with his daughters' encouragement, he decides to pay the guy a visit...  To some extent, I can see why the film has attracted such praise. The acting is pretty solid across the board, with Clooney and Woodley offering particularly good performances. Payne succeeds in portraying how life goes on in Hawaii, away from the touristy areas, and the film incorporates some beautiful shots of the unspoilt Hawaiian scenery. However, for me, this is a bit of a step down for Alexander Payne. I'm a big fan of Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, and that's largely because of the wonderfully sharp scripts, which display Payne's caustic wit and ear for dialogue. Though it's great to see Alexander back making movies again, Descendants feels rather blunt and dull in comparison.

Rating: 6/10

Monday, 23 January 2012

That was the week that was (16 - 22 January)

OK then, another week of movies to pick over and rehash for my own personal amusement. On a general note, I'm feeling a bit underwhelmed by the films out on release at the moment. Maybe it's just my rose-tinted spectacles (this isn't a metaphor - I'm actually wearing rose-tinted glasses right now. They make everything seem that little bit more pleasant), but when I think back to January this time last year, there were some great films like 128 Hours, Black Swan, The King's Speech and True Grit coming out, one after the other. It was like a magic fun factory that never stopped. This year, we're looking at War Horse, The Descendants, Haywire, Shame and The Iron Lady, none of which I'm looking forward to anything like as much as last year's studio offerings. Ah well, blockbuster season looks like it will be better this year, what with The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spiderman coming out this spring/ summer...

The Way Back (2010)

Peter Weir's most recent film tells the amazing (though possibly not strictly true) story of a group of escapees from a Siberian gulag in 1941. This motley crue of prisoners, which includes the optimistic Pole Janusz (Jim Sturgess), the cynical and mysterious 'Mr Smith' (Ed Harris) and the unpredictable and possibly psychotic thief Valka (Colin Farrell), head out on a colossal journey from Northern Russia all the way down to freedom in India. On their way, they are beset by various troubles, including hunger, insect attacks and extremes of cold (in Siberia) and heat (in the Gobi desert) - and not every member of the party makes it all the way to the end. This is an old fashioned epic, a movie telling an amazing story of courage and fortitude, and despite the film's quite substantial running time, I was never bored by what was on screen. Probably the film's strongest feature is the fantastic camerawork, with cinematographer Russell Boyd making excellent use of the stunning natural backdrops to the journey.  Although some of the supporting characters are perhaps a little underdeveloped, I was nevertheless impressed by the majority of the cast - particularly Ed Harris as the enigmatic American escapee, and Colin Farrell as the violent wildcard Valka. Seeing this kind of film makes me wonder how I'd fare if I was put in a similar situation. To be honest, I'd probably have given up the ghost in the Siberian forest, but that only makes you admire the characters who stick it out for the whole journey all the more.

Rating: 8/10

I Saw the Devil (2010)

When I reviewed Mother a couple of weeks back, I made a comment along the lines of "based on the films I've seen, some of South Korea' s leading directors may be a little unhinged" - and this picture isn't something which is going to change my mind on that front.  To be completely fair, the only South Korean films I seek out are either revenge thrillers like Oldboy, ghost stories like A Tale of Two Sisters and serial killer/ police dramas like Memories of Murder and The Chaser, so I'm sure there are plenty of South Korean directors making sweet, innocent, family friendly movies, which I haven't had the inclination to see. Anyway, this is one twisted movie - telling a story of serial murder and vengeance in modern day Seoul. The plot centres on the murder of the wife of top government agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee) by a particularly vicious and unrepentant serial killer Kyung-chal (Min-sik Choi). Though Kim is able to use his inside connections to track down his wife's killer relatively quickly, he decides that killing him straight away would be far too lenient. Instead, he decides to implant him with a GPS chip and microphone, then operate a sort of 'catch and release' programme, tracking Kyung-chal's movements and capturing him (and beating him up) again and again. However, when Kyung-chal realises what is happening, he vows revenge against Kim's surviving family members... This movie is directed with great flair, with a number of fantastically stylish sequences (notably a brutal attack carried out in a moving taxi), but I was a little uncomfortable with the sheer amount of gratuitous violence on screen. Unlike Snowtown last week (where the for the most part the murder was left off screen, meaning that the one particularly brutal and unpleasant scene has all the more impact), I Saw The Devil presents the viewer with so much stylised violence that you soon reach saturation point, and by the end of the movie, nothing seems shocking. I'm not sure that the director, Jee-woon Kim, has anything especially profound to say with all of this mayhem - and for that reason, I wouldn't rate this movie as highly as other South Korean revenge thrillers like Oldboy or Lady Vengeance.

Rating: 6/10

Confessions (2010)

Another stylish revenge movie, Confessions is kind of like a Japanese take on 'Unman, Wittering and Zigo'. In the powerful opening sequence, we see a strangely calm middle school teacher, Yukio Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), telling a class of unruly teenagers that she is to leave the school at the end of spring. As the class begin to pay attention to what their teacher is saying, she explains that reason for this decision is that she knows two members of her class were to blame for the supposedly accidental death of her four year old daughter - and that in order to exact revenge for this tragedy, she has poisoned the milk of the two kids responsible with HIV infected blood. This action leads to terrible repurcussions for all concerned, and we get to hear the stories of all those involved in the tragedy... Sadly, after the excellent opening scene, the film never quite lives up to its promise. Though it is directed with great panache by Tetsuya Nakashima, at times it feels like a series of music videos, loosely strung together. I'm not sure I really bought into the motivation behind the murder by the culprits, and maybe I'm a little naive, but it seemed a little unlikely so many sociopaths could be harboured in the same middle school class. I was frequently dazzled by the director's visual sense, but ultimately felt like he was using all the weapons in his arsenal to disguise the fact that this movie doesn't really have too much to say. It's nothing too special then, I'm afraid, despite the strong opening and a fairly clever twist at the end.

Rating: 6/10

War Horse (2011)

Steven Spielberg's latest effort looks back upon the horror and devastation caused by the first World War through the eyes of a lovely, lovely horse. After establishing the bond between said horse (named Joey) and his owner,  Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a hardworking young farmhand from Devon, things take an unfortunate turn when both horse and boy are sent off to war in the battlefields of the Western Front. Though Albert's whereabouts are initially unclear, we follow Joey on his travels throughout wartorn France, as he  makes a winning impression on a variety of different people: a lieutenant in the British cavalry, a pair of German deserters, a young, sickly French girl and her grandfather, and a kindly German officer. To be honest, I have some fairly serious reservations about this movie, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the first section of the movie (set in Devon) was very slow paced, with a number of strange contrivances - would a poverty stricken tenant farmer really be able to outbid his landlord for a horse? Why do the country folk of Devon seem so surprised when it turns out to be easier to plow a soft, damp field than hard, stony ground? Also, despite Richard Curtis having a hand in writing the script, I found the dialogue to be rather clunky, using awkward, unnaturalistic speech and too much exposition. Although Spielberg has assembled a strong cast, including the likes of Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch. Toby Kebbell and Eddie Marsan, nobody really distinguishes themselves on the acting front, and I found it to be rather irritating that rather than having German and French characters speak in their own langauge, with subtitles, they instead spoke dubiously accented English. Despite all of those weaknesses, this is still a very handsome production, with generally strong cinematography, and for me, the film was almost redeemed by a couple of tremendously powerful sequences - the first bringing home the terror of the trenches, as we follow a brigade of British troops heading over the top, and the second showing Joey running through the trenches and no mans land in a bid for freedom. Overall though, a bit of a disappointment, and apparently not a patch on the stage version currently on show at the National Theatre.

Rating: 5/10

Point Blank (A Bout Portant) (2010)

This frenetic French thriller sees Samuel Pierrot, a trainee nurse (played by Gilles Lelouche) become an unwilling participant in a stand off between a safecracker named Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem), and a corrupt police squad. After saving Sartet's life in hospital, Pierrot is targetted by the safecracker's partner - and is informed that unless he helps Sartet escape, his wife will die.  Pretty soon, the whole Parisian police force is on the tail of the runaway pair, and their only chance of saving Pierrot's wife and clearing Sartet's name is to work together against the crooked cops. This is a well made, fast paced (but rather short) movie in which we are never given a moment's respite. Poor old Elena Anaya, who was also held against her will in the last film I saw her in (The Sky I Live In), is held captive for most of the film's running time, and spends a good chunk of the story tied to a chair in a dank warehouse. I just hope her agent can find her a role in which she gets a bit more freedom, and maybe the chance to work outdoors next time. Anyway, while the film hardly a classic, it kept me interested throughout and it rattles to a fitting conclusion at a breakneck pace.

Rating: 7/10

Monday, 16 January 2012

That was the week that was (9 - 15 January)

This week, I did something I haven't done for a while - I attended a double bill at the cinema. Of course, I've had plenty of days over the past year where I've watched two films back to back at home, but there's something different and a bit special about sitting in the dark at the movies at the same seat for four hours or so. I occasionally see adverts for 'film marathons' (last year, there was a event held in Brighton, showing John Carpenter films all night, which sounded amazing); I'll have to keep my eyes peeled and see if anything similar is coming to Bristol in the near future.

Step Brothers (2008)

I'm generally a big fan of Judd Apatow produced comedies, though I have to admit that his films diverge wildly in quality. I'd put films like Superbad, The Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up owards the top end of the scale, with others like Talladega Nights, Funny People and Pineapple Express on the lower end. Looking at the above movies, the pattern seems to be that where Apatow is directing the film himself, it's likely to be good - otherwise, you're on much shakier ground. I'm a little less convinced about the merits of Will Ferrell - I think the guy can be very funny (particularly in Anchorman) but all too often (as is the case with this movie) he turns in a lazy variation on his favourite 'manchild' character, with a few inspired gags buried in an avalanche of bits that just don't work, and which go on for far too long. This is kind of a shame, as the premise of the film - two lazy, middle aged stay-at-home kids (Ferrell and John C. Reilly) who are forced to grow up when their parents get married - certainly could have been made into something much stronger. The movie has one or two really funny moments, but for every good joke, there are about five that just don't work. Even then, I wouldn't have minded too much, but I just felt that almost every character in the film was unpleasant. I guess we're supposed to root for Ferrell and Reilly's characters, but they're both too odious to care about. I'm afraid to say that Step Brothers feels more like a generic, weak Will Ferrell movie than something which Judd Apatow has had much of a hand in.

Rating: 5/10

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

Sometimes when you come back to a film you loved as a child, it's just as good as you remember it, and you can enjoy the film as more than just nostalgia. (A couple of examples of this would be E.T. and Big, which I can pretty much watch again and again). Other times, when you revisit an old favourite, you find yourself wondering what you found to be so magical about that movie in the first place. For me, Flight of the Navigator fits squarely into that second category. The premise is still pretty interesting; our hero, David Freeman (aged 12), goes out into the woods to fetch his brother, falls down a ravine and blacks out. When he comes to his senses, he is astonished to discover that eight years have passed, and while his parents and younger brother have grown older, he hasn't aged a day. (This is kind of the opposite of the phenomenon that Wooderson observes in Dazed and Confused). He's subjected to tests by NASA, who discover that he appears to have been implanted with information from a recently discovered UFO. David isn't too keen on being treated like a human guinea pig, however, and takes to the skies in the alien vessel, with the authorities in hot pursuit... I wouldn't say that I hated this movie this time around - as I've mentioned, the plot is intriguing and the picture's short running time meant I never had the chance to get bored with the proceedings. Unfortunately, there are certain aspects of the film (which I probably loved as a kid) which I now find really grating; particularly the voice of the computer controlling the space ship, which is supposed to be 'wacky' and 'fun', but is just really irritating. All the same, I'm going to be fairly generous with the mark I give this film - I probably would have given it a '10' when I first saw it, and I reckon it would still be entertaining for a younger audience today.

Rating: 6/10

Snowtown (2010)

This recent Aussie crime drama (and the first part of my Thursday night double bill) can be filed alongside Lilya 4 Ever, We Need To Talk About Kevin and The White Ribbon as 'films which I  really liked which are too traumatising to watch again'. (There's a great list of similar movies on the AV Club website, here:,2048//). The setting is Adelaide in the '90s, in that city's deprived northern suburbs, where Jamie Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway) is growing up with his mother and three brothers. Into this poverty stricken environment comes John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), who with his easy smile and breezy self confidence at first appears that he will be a positive influence on Jamie's life. However, his cheery, laddish exterior is a mask for the evil within, and as a father figure, he inducts Jamie into his circle of murderers. They start by targetting suspected paedophiles in their community, before moving on to attack anybody who is vulnerable and wouldn't be missed.  As a dramatisation of the events surrounding a notorious serial killer, I kind of expected Snowtown to be graphically gruesome, but in terms of on screen atrocities, with one notable exception, the film is quite restrained. That's not to say it pulls any punches in relation to spelling out just how horrifying the actions of Bunting and company were - it's just that for the most part, the brutal extent of the killings is left to the viewer's imagination. Nevertheless, by the end of the film, you feel rather like Lucas Pittaway's central character - numb and speechless from the horror you have witnessed.

Rating: 8/10

Margaret (2011)

Kenneth Lonergan's brilliant debut picture, You Can Count On Me, is one of my favourite films, so I was intrigued to see how this follow up would fare in comparison. To be honest, I wasn't overly optimistic going in, as I had heard that this film had been the subject of a protracted legal battle over the content of the final cut, and that the version of the film on release was shorter than Lonergan had originally intended. Anyway, after seeing the film, I can say that it exceeded my expectations to a large degree. This was the second part of my Thursday night double bill, and after subjecting myself to the horrors of Snowtown, I suppose it came as a sweet relief to spend some time with characters who weren't likely to find themselves at the wrong end of John Bunting's big bag o' torture implements. It's a little hard to summarise what Margaret is all about, other than to say that it is a drama set in New York shortly after September the 11th, with are a wide variety of subplots and interesting supporting characters. However, the central plot focusses on the consequences of a tragic bus accident, in which a pedestrian (played by Alison Janney) is run over and killed. 17 year old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), who was distracting the driver at the time, feels guilty over her role in the tragedy, and decides to encourage the victim's family to sue the bus company. Paquin delivers a fantastic lead performance, and is unafraid to show the negative side of her fully realised character - somebody who is intelligent and articulate, but who can be narcisstic, self righteous and cruel. Although at times the editing of the film is a little confusing, with some scenes ending rather abruptly, the film more than makes up for it in other areas. There are a number of scenes which are quite brilliant - I particularly enjoyed the awkward dinners between Lisa's actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron and her rich suitor (Jean Reno), the scene where Lisa loses her virginity to the impossibly laid back Paul (Kieran Culkin) and the often hilarous interactions at Lisa's Upper West Side school, with Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon appearing as teachers. (Broderick's role is rather similar to the one he memorably played in Alexander Payne's Election). Although Margaret may not be perfect, it's got some of the best acting and sharpest dialogue I've seen in a film for quite some time. I'm just looking forward to the time when Lonergan is able to deliver his own, definitive cut of the film.

Rating: 9/10

Hot Rod (2007)

In which Andy Samberg and his Lonely Island pals (Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) take their Youtube-approved schtick into the exciting world of daredevilling (or daredevilmanship - I'm not quite sure what the correct term is here). Samberg plays Rod Kimble, a guy in his 20s with aspirations to be the new Evel Knievel, and whose other quest in life is a strong desire to beat his disapproving stepfather (Ian McShane) in a fight. When he discovers that his stepfather has a serious heart condition, and that as a result, it will no longer be possible to defeat him in combat, Kimble decides to raise money for the heart surgery by jumping over 15 school buses.  Unfortunately, 'Hot Rod' is possibly the worst stuntman in the world, unable to jump over even a small swimming pool. In a way, this movie seems a little like Step Brothers - the protagonists are all guys in their late 20s and early 30s, who still act as if they are kids. In contrast to Step Brothers, though, there's a certain sweetness and naivety about these characters which makes you root for them. Of course, the most important question here is whether the movie is funny or not - and I'd say that most of the time, it is. (As a rule of thumb, any scene involving Will Arnett is comedy gold). Samberg and Taccone are helped out by a strong ensemble cast of comic actors who have cut their teeth on American comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, Arrested Development and Eastbound and Down, such as Bill Hader and Danny McBride.  All in all, it's no masterpiece, but if you like mopeds, partying and damp fireworks, you're in for a treat.

Rating: 7/10

From Russia With Love (1963)

Although I've seen all of the recent Bond movies (which have ranged from very good - Goldeneye and Casino Royale, to downright atrocious - Die Another Day), I wouldn't describe myself as a huge Bond fan. When it comes to the older films, I'm sure I've seen most of them at some point or other on ITV on rainy afternoons, but they all seem to blend into one another. I therefore wasn't completely sure whether or not I'd actually seen the film before. Anyway, having now watched this one, I'm pretty sure it isn't a Bond movie I've seen before. This is only the second instalment in the Bond series, and sees the British and Russian governments played off against one another by supervillain Blofeld and his organisation, SPECTRE. When From Russia With Love was made, way back in the '60s, James Bond was a fairly regular secret agent (and part time lothario) - he didn't have the superpowers in bullet dodging, martial arts and product placement which he gains in more recent instalments. This is probably stating the obvious, Sean Connery makes for an excellent Bond - he's tough, with a kind of rumpled cool.  Although the action sequences look a little tame in comparison with more recent entries in the series, the movie is well plotted, features a memorable Bond girl in Daniela Bianchi, and makes good use of footage shot on location in Istanbul.

Rating: 7/10

The Artist (2011)

This movie seems to be the frontrunner for Best Picture Oscar this year, and has already snagged a few Golden Globes (as well as an overwhelming number of rapturous reviews from leading critics), so I decided to check it out and see what the fuss was all about. Of course, the film's big gimmick is that as well as being set in 1920s Los Angeles, and concerning the life and times of a silent film star, the movie itself is largely silent, with dialogue provided by means of title cards. Despite this, the plot is fairly straightforward, and easy enough to follow without any need for speech, even for an ignoramus such as myself. Jean Dujardin plays 'The Artist' in question, an actor called George Valentin, who begins the film on top of the world, living the life of a Hollywood success story - with a a luxuriously appointed mansion, chauffeur driven car and thousands of screaming fans. Sadly for George, his era is about to come to an end, with the advent of the 'talkies'. While his star is on the wane, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo)'s career in in the ascendancy. When George loses everything but his dog, only Peppy can reinstate him to a position of prominence in Tinseltown... I'm going to have to come out and admit my complete ignorance when it comes to silent movies - I've never seen one in full before - so I guess quite a few of the nods and winks which The Artist gives to classics of that era went completely over my head. Despite that, I did really enjoy the film. I didn't find it to be quite as brilliant as certain critics have made out, but despite a few rather dull stretches in the movie, it was funny, touching and beautifully shot. The two lead actors both give terrific, highly expressive performances, which are all the more impressive for the fact that barely a word is uttered by either for the duration of the film. Judging by the Golden Globes, the other major contender for Oscar success is The Descendants (starring George Clooney). I believe that movie is out over here towards the end of this month, so I'll have to compare it with The Artist and see which of the two I prefer. I'm sure the Oscar judging panel will be waiting with baited breath for my opinion on the matter.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 9 January 2012

That was the week that was (2 - 9 January)

Well, the New Year is now well underway, and I've got back into the swing of things. I should point out that in addition to the films listed below, I also saw (most of) a few other movies. As I was watching them with friends and not paying full attention, I didn't think it was worth giving them a proper write up. Anyway, for the record, I also watched the following films this week:

Paul (2011) - Quite a lot funnier than I expected, with some amusing nods to classic Sci-Fi films;
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) - Every bit as lame as I thought it would be, notwithstanding the awesomeness of Clark Duke; and
L.A. Confidential (1997) - One of my all time favourite films, a brilliantly acted and directed adaptation of James Ellroy's (also excellent) novel.

Mother (2009)

I've seen quite a few South Korean films over the last few years, and without wanting to make any crass generalisations, I've come to the conclusion that most South Korean directors are a) brilliant and b) more than a little unhinged. While not quite as graphically violent or crazy as Chan-wook Park's Vengeance trilogy, Mother is certainly a highly unusual film. It's a whodunnit, but told from the perspective of the mother of a mentally handicapped man who has been accused of the murder of a schoolgirl. Armed only with a set of acupuncture needles, Hye ja-Kim sets out to prove that her son was falsely accused. However, in carrying out her investigations, she must deal with a violent, incompetent police force, venal and sleazy lawyers and Stanley knife wielding schoolkids. It reminded me a little of the films of David Lynch, with an apparently normal South Korean town turning out to be a hotbed of corruption under the surface. I was also impressed with the twists and turns which the story took, meaning I had no idea as to how this one was going to end. It's certainly not your run of the mill detective story, but it's a film which I would definitely recommend.

Rating: 8/10

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)

Tom 'the Cruiser' Cruise returns as Ethan Hunt for a fourth instalment in the spy thriller franchise. This time, his Impossible Missions Force (who get to have way more excitement on the job than people who work for the International Monetary Fund) are attempting to stop a Swedish academic who has apparently decided that the best way to bring about lasting world peace is to incite nuclear war between the US and Russia. Joining the Cruiser on his team are wisecracking tech geek Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), reluctant agent with a troubled past William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and possible love interest/ martial artist Jane Carter (Paula Patton). In their quest to stop nuclear armageddon, the IMF fly from Russia to the UAE and finally to India, crossing swords with the Russian secre service and a gorgeous French assassin (Lea Seydoux) en route. It's all pretty good fun, if you don't think too hard about the sometimes shaky dialogue and hackneyed character back stories, and some of the stunts (particularly the scene in which Cruise abseils down the Burj Khalifa) are fantastic. Unfortunately, it runs for about half an hour too long, with a final section set in Mumbai which is a bit of a letdown after the breathtaking scenes in Dubai. Comparing the film to other entries in the series, it's probably about on a par with MI3, and better than MI2, but lags some way behind the superior first movie (directed by Brian de Palma).

Rating: 6/10

Biutiful (2010)

The most recent film from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalex Inarritu (who also helmed the fantastic Amores Perros), Biutiful takes a look at the underground economy in Barcelona. Moving on from the interweaving stories for which Inarritu became famous, this is a more straightforward narrative, in which we follow put upon family man Uxbal (Javier Bardem). Uxbal has been dealt rather a rotten hand in life - as well as having to act as liaison between the police, the Chinese manufacturers of knock off goods and the African street vendors, he's a single father to two young children, has a shaky relationship with his ex-wife and has just discovered that he has contracted terminal prostate cancer. Oh, and he can also commune with the dead, so there's that too... In some ways, I think Innarritu has tried to cram too many elements into one film here. I didn't feel that the plot strands in which Uxbal communes with the dead add too much to the story, and it might have been better if this had simply been a story of a dying man trying to keep his family together. Having said that, Javier Bardem gives a strong performance in the central role, and the film takes you into corners of the Western world which you do not often see in the cinema. In an era where many films barely have one idea to rub together, I don't want to be too critical of this movie, which is full of ideas, if a little unfocused.

Rating: 7/10

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

In which a goth computer hacker teams up with a disgraced journalist to solve a murder from the '60s involving members of a prominent Swedish industrialist's family... I've never read Stieg Larsson's bestselling 'Millennium' novels, but I had previously seen the Swedish adaptation of this trilogy, so was interested to see what David Fincher could bring to the series. In truth, the answer is 'not all that much', though this film is rather more stylish and visually arresting than the original Swedish movie. I don't mean to be too critical of Fincher, as I thoroughly enjoyed his version of the story, but for me, the original film left little room for improvement and this time around I didn't have the excitememt of finding out 'whodunnit'. It's certainly a very good film, with particular praise due to Rooney Mara, who makes an excellent Lisbeth Salander, but on balance I'd rather Fincher moved on to a fresh project for his next movie. It seems a bit of a waste for a guy who can make films as brilliant as Seven, Zodiac and The Social Network to be remaking a series of films which are only a couple of years old.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, 1 January 2012

That was the week that was (26 December - 1 January 2012)

Well, a new year is upon us, but fear not, I'm going to persevere with the same old tired nonsense here at Kirk's Movie Blog. It was a pretty quiet week, film-wise - I've been away visiting family and friends over the Christmas period, so only had time to catch a couple of movies this week. Normal service will be resumed next week.

The Scouting Book for Boys (2009)

This recent British Indie film is a coming of age tale, telling the story of David and Emily, two teenagers who have grown up together at a camp site in Norfolk. When Emily's father wins a custody suit, and it looks like she is going to have to move away, the pair come up with a plan so that they can stay together for the summer. Emily will hide out in a cave at a nearby beach, with David bringing her supplies and keeping her company whenever possible. Unfortunately, the execution of this simple plan leads to tragedy - Emily's disappearance sparks a local manhunt, with David's lies to the authorities and parents begin to catch up with him. This was a film which has quite a lot going for it, particularly the acting of the two young actors in the lead roles, Thomas Turgoose and Holliday Grainger. I've seen 'Thomo' in around four films and TV shows to date, and I don't think he's ever put in a weak performance. He's definitely one to look out for in the future. Another positive is the cinematography, which includes some beautiful shots of the Norfolk coastline, and a visually arresting sequence at the start of the picture, in which David and Emily jump from the roofs of rows of caravans in the holiday park. Despite all of those plus points, I was rather disappointed by the way the film ended, which I felt took the film into an unneccesarily cruel direction. It's not that I'm averse to an unhappy ending per se, but I felt that the way in which David acted in the climatic scenes were not consistent with the character which had been established in the first two thirds of the  movie. Nevertheless, it's a promising debut from director Tom Harper and definitely the finest film I've seen set in a Norfolk holiday camp.

Rating: 7/10

The Killers (1946)

This is a brilliant film noir, starring Burt Lancaster as a washed up former boxer who is double crossed by a beautiful femme fatale played by Ava Gardner. The movie grabs you from the opening scene, adaptated from the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name - two cold, arrogant contract killers walk into a diner in a small town in New Jersey, order a dinner of ham and eggs and begin menacing its staff and patrons. What follows next is even more extraordinary, as Burt Lancaster's character, Ole 'the Swede' Andreson, is warned of the killers' presence, yet decides to stay put and await his death at the hands of those two assassins. It is only down to the efforts of Jim Riordan, an relentless insurance invesigator played by Edmond O'Brien, that the truth comes to light.  For me, this one is up there with the very best in the genre, comparable to the likes of Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and The Maltese Falcon. I really liked the film's rather unusual structure; Andreson's tale of woe is told in flashbacks as Riordan talks to the various people in the Swede's life, who are to provide parts of the story from their perspective.  It features an excellent cast, with some of Hollywood's most iconic stars in their prime, some very sharp and witty dialogue, a prize fight, a heist, and a plot which keeps you guessing until the final scene.  Thoroughly recommended.

Rating: 9/10